How To Choose The Right School

Former Assistant Head (Admissions), Mrs Sally Petrie offers some tips on choosing the right school:

Sally Petrie 2014

“The process of choosing the right school for your child can be an anxious experience for parents and children. Having been involved in 11+ admissions for over twenty years (and having been through it with my own three children), I understand just how much of a strain the Senior School entry process – a day of life changing significance – can be for parents, particularly if it’s their first time through what can feel like a time consuming and uneasy few weeks.

At times it can seem that every future happiness of your family rests on the contents of your child’s pencil case/brain: will the contents of both be sharp enough for the Herculean tasks that lie ahead? Irrational thoughts beset as you try to juggle both your nervousness and theirs; you arrive 90 minutes early on exam day and keep reminding yourself that it is better to be early than late. Your child sits quietly next to you, coat on, managing their own fears. It’s a strange hour to while away…

Ten Tips to Reduce the Stress…

  1. Don’t worry about the actual Entrance Exam Day. They will have fun…no, honestly, I mean it. At Cheadle Hulme School, we introduced a fun activity as part of the day and haven’t looked back. The School is full of engaged, cheerful candidates acting, dancing, making music, cooking, drawing, sewing, exploding things (safely in a lab of course) and playing sport…as well as doing a few tests.
  2. Relax. You are incredibly fortunate to be in an area with a huge number of great schools, so you are likely to have more than one exciting option for your child.
  3. Don’t prepare for the interviews. Children genuinely do best when they can be themselves; indeed, we find that with an experienced team of staff who volunteer to interview because they enjoy it so much, conversation just flows naturally. Remember, too, that in the parent interviews, you are interviewing us!
  4. Forget the words ‘pass’ and ‘fail’. The Entrance Exams are all about matching children to schools where they are going to thrive. At Cheadle Hulme School we look for potential and for us, the school reference and the  interview are just as important as the exam.
  5. Glossy brochures and carefully chosen photos on a school’s website might give you a broad impression of a school, but nothing beats a visit on a working day. We are always delighted when parents and children come to see us; we are proud of what we are every day. Read on to hear a bit more about this…
  6. Look closely at the ‘end product’. Are the students you come across confident, happy, academically curious, ambitious?  Do they display the kind of qualities you want for your child?
  7. If you can, talk to parents with children already at the school. They will give you the best feel for the place. We have a number of Cheadle Hulme School Parent Ambassadors, so if you don’t have any direct contacts, let us know and we will happily put you in touch with one of our parents.
  8. Try to resist being too swayed by where your child’s current friends are going. Our students tell us that  the opportunity to make new friends was one of the very best things about starting Senior School. Our Peer Mentor Scheme, comprehensive pastoral support and co-curricular programme all combine to ensure  new students have plenty of chances to form new friendships from the moment they arrive.
  9. Consider the claims made about the benefits of single sex education carefully, and remember that you are making a long-term choice. As your son or daughter matures he or she will need to be comfortable with the opposite sex and at ease in a mixed working environment.  Being a co-educational School, our students are able to share the sometimes different approaches to learning boys and girls offer; more ideas, more viewpoints, more skills.
  10. Go with your gut. Even if friends in your social circle favour a particular school,  you know your child best and if a place feels right for your family, trust your instincts. Child psychologist Betsy Brown Braun once commented that, as a parent, you are “only as happy as your unhappiest child”, so you have a vested interest in getting it right.

The School Tour…

Taking a tour during a regular working day is a vital ingredient in a family’s decision-making process when choosing a new school.

view HH WEB

If formal Open Days encourage schools to present themselves in a glossy, post make-over, pimped, Gok Wan-esque style, then the post-offer weekday tours are, most definitely, the minimal make-up, comfortable underwear, flat shoed version of the institution and are, let’s face it, much closer to the real, day-to-day experience of being a student there.

Monday 3rd March 2014 is ringed on many Cheshire calendars (the date on which we send out 11+ offers), and marks the beginning of a ten day period when families revisit schools on tours, to firm up their choices. Interestingly, visitors tend to fall into three distinct groups; the ‘decided’ – just back for a confirmation visit, the ‘undecided’ – genuinely torn between two or more schools,  and the ‘split decision’ families – where one or other parent favours a different school, or where parents want the child to accept a particular school, but the child has other ideas! Certainly, for the latter two groups, the final tour is an incredibly important experience.

Having just spent an inordinate amount of time in the half-term break hunting on Trip Advisor, moderating searches on and reading a vast array of travel articles whilst organising a pretty complicated summer holiday for a family of five – all with slightly different priorities – I was reminded of how easy it is to be bamboozled by advice overload. The last part of my travel jigsaw, the challenge of finding an affordable venue for a four-day stay in Venice, slotted into place for me when I came across a great article by Suzanne Moore in The Guardian about a recent trip; one email and I was sorted, thanks to some specific insider advice.

So, in the hope that some insider advice of the educational variety might help you to make the most of your tour, these are the five questions you might have in mind when touring.

  1. Is this school a practical option for the whole family? Consider ease of journey, cost and timings of buses, proximity to a station, safety of the immediate environment and local area, term dates matching those of siblings, possibility of younger siblings also joining the school.
  2. Are the basics in place to ensure an effective daily routine? Early arrival and after school  care provision, school catering, lockers and storage, access to a library or other learning areas, availability of computers or iPads at school, access to online learning material from home, decent toilets, good play spaces, nice classrooms, pleasant communal areas, first aid provision, effective communication with parents.
  3. Is the school academically ambitious? Find out about tracking, value added, extension opportunities, support for anyone struggling, curriculum reviews, subject mentoring. Is the teaching exciting, fresh, stimulating? Is there clear evidence of learning in the lessons, on the walls, in the students’ files and books? Ask about leavers destinations, support for university applications, careers advice.
  4. What is on offer beyond the classroom? Ask about the full range and involvement levels for trips, clubs, sport, music, drama, societies, community service, leadership opportunities, links with business and other institutions.
  5. Do the students you see model the qualities you want your child to have by the time they leave the school? Talk to students in lessons you visit, watch their interactions at lesson changeover, stop and ask them about their school experiences. Equally important are the staff. Are the teachers friendly, committed, inspiring? Are the support staff approachable, professional, happy to be there?

Finally, and probably most importantly, trust your instincts. Families often talk about the ‘feeling’ they get from a school visit, that intangible gut reaction which convinces you that this is the right place for your child. What made me book the little apartment in Venice recommended in The Guardian was not price, location or facilities but a sense, looking at the photo of the pretty walled courtyard garden, that we would just love being there…it felt right.

In the process of choosing the right school, I know the wait for the offer letters can be something of a trial but, rather like childbirth, I promise you won’t remember the pain once the delivery is over!

Good luck!”

Check out other blog post ‘Questions you should be asking the admissions team‘ for further advice on choosing the right school.